Another issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is about and it's full of works that look at tricks and cheats. At attempts to cut corners and find magical ways to avoid hard decisions. Hard situations. The stories by and large take a look at the morality of violence and trickery when it comes to conflicts both large and small, national and personal. The stories show characters seeking to bargain their ways through situations. To save themselves. To save those things they care about. It…doesn't often work out, but these works show the many ways people can hope to cheat fate and circumstance, to use power to make up for misfortune. Time to review!
|Art by Jerome Peabody|
"The Man in Chains" by Harry Piper (10,195 words)
This is a story to me that revolves around the ideas of nationalism and loyalty, where a king and his closest warriors set off into the unknown to recruit an ally to save them from a powerful neighbor and hopefully keep their own nation whole and hardy. The action of the piece is dark, violent. The story takes place in a period where politics is mostly argued at the point of a sword and where strength is typically measured by number of warriors and their ability to protect their villagers from slaughter. It makes things fairly simple, morally speaking, until this king decides that the best course of action is to go and unleash something…hungry in order to strike back against his enemies. This is told from the perspective of one of the king's guards, framed as that guard telling this story as an old man, looking back on this dark moment in his history and the fallout of it. And I like how the story looks at nationalism and the idea of loyalty. To one's king, to one's self, to one's idea of justice. The king here is loyal to his nation but interprets this as doing anything to help it survive, regardless of whether or not that's the best thing for humanity. It's a question of how far you draw your ingroup whether or not you believe this. Is it worth it to unleash terror and death on a huge scale if it protects the people you care about? Even if more people overall will die? Where does loyalty end? Is the death of a nation something to mourn, if the nation dying is really no different or better than the nation doing the killing? The story doesn't offer up an answer and I like that, showing that these decisions are often influenced by the feelings and needs of the moment, and that is where both great harm and great healing can come from. It's an interesting piece and convincingly rendered, a story told by an old man looking back at a terrifying moment of his life. A fine story!
"Eyes or No Eyes" by Martin Rose (6992 words)
This is a really lovely story about knights and battle. About wizards and princes. About magic and heroes. And I love the way that it builds itself, the way that it circles the core of the wizard Quint, who really isn't much of a wizard, who is a surly old man who still finds himself a lonely old man and who finds himself in the position to not only help an injured knight but, really, his entire kingdom. The world that is built here is one that magic has mostly fled, where knights joust and men call themselves wizards but they're mostly just good at reading old books. But there is a spark of it left, just as there is a spark of heroism, and when Quint takes in the knight Aislinn, who was injured in a joust, she helps to fan that spark into something more. Into a fire that is ignited in her chest and in Quint's and in their kingdom. There's a lot of great character work here, the affect that Aislinn and Quint share but also Aislinn's drive to be active, to be doing something, to show the world that there are heroes yet, that there is magic yet. And it's also something of a quiet story, for while there is action occasionally the story really is about change and learning to see in new ways, through others' eyes. It's about a prince who only ever thought of himself finding that he can be a little bit selfless, too, even if he's always a bit of a bastard. And it's about a surly old wizard who should be too cantankerous to believe in anything finding that he can still be inspired. He can still hope. And as long as that hope is alive there is magic in the world. It's a wonderful tale that you should definitely check out!
"Seven Moves on an Ordrulk Board" by Adrian Simmons (11,390 words)
This story speaks to me of bargaining and power. In it, Muriq resolves to break one of the laws of the land, pouching in a protected forest, in order to try and cure his mother and sister of a deadly disease. Only what he finds when he goes hunting is something much…different than he expected. And much more powerful. Like the first story of the issue, this one examines the morality of tapping into powers that might be best left alone. But this one looks more at the bargaining aspect of the deal, of how Murip tries to trade up, trading the pain of animals for the lives of humans. But always it comes with risks, and always he has to do more and more, always being driven away from the simple acts of the beginning days of the bargain and toward the ultimate act that this Entity demands of him. It builds slowly and relentlessly, showing the good that he does, yes, and the broken system that he has to work in. He's loyal to a point and does heal people, does do good. But people can do good for many reasons and Muriq seems motivated by the power of it, by being able to decide who lives and who dies. He gets a taste for what he does, and even as he resists what he's becoming he doesn't stop. Because power corrupts. It's an interesting setting and a nice look at the fall of one character, the incremental way that he steps toward something he never would have done at the beginning. And it shows how the Entity never has to lie because it knows that what it has will work. That what it offers will be too tempting to Muriq, who is so ready to bargain, who is so ready to think that this is something that can be tricked and strategized against, when really the game was lost when he decided to play. A fascinating read!
"Lethe's Cup and the White Sword" (part 2) by Cullen Groves
This poem is a novella. Just let that sink in. It is told in verse, it rhymes, and it is a novella. For that alone it is probably worth giving some time to, but it's also a piece that calls up the classic epic poems of knights and elves, pagans and Christians. It's a romantic poem as well of a knight and the kickass elf half-elf that he falls in love with. Twice. And yeah, a lot happens in this poem that will please fans of the form and the time period it does honor to. There's lots of gratuitous violence and lots of time spent on swords and food and drinking. I rather like the wedding sequence where the parallels are drawn between the extravagance of the elvin feast and the dire situation of Conrad and his crew. It's not really going to surprise anyone in how it ends, because the ending was sort of a given once the form was clear, but it does a very nice job of getting there, of letting the language shine and giving a lot of action and death and love and more death and some mead. The relationship between the two main characters is an interesting one, as well, and one that could have been a lot worse given the period of time that it's evoking. It's still a bit steeped in the ideas of Christianity and obedience but it also shows a willingness not to let a female character hold power and violence and not have to die because of it. For fans of the form, this is definitely a piece to pay attention to. For everyone else, I'd also say it's worth a read if only to see what a contemporary novella-length epic poem can look like. Indeed!
"Garuda's Gamble" by Colleen Anderson
I'm not very familiar with the mythology that this piece evokes but it's a nicely complex poem about lies and about care, about exploits and about why snakes have forked tongues. And I love that aspect of the poem, the sort of fairy tale role of trying to explain something while also teaching a lesson. It's also something of a trickster story, the narrator here having to deal with an unfortunate situation and their cunning and power to get themselves out, to defy the most powerful of gods but not have to suffer for it. And having it be just because the agreement was never really made in good faith, was always something that the nagas were going to try and take advantage of, and so striking first is rather gratifying to see. The language of the piece is fun and vivid, painting this picture of magic and wonder and gods fighting. And I love the wry voice of the narrator, the morally ambiguity of it, that it takes what wasn't forbidden as something of a given, that it knows how these kinds of stories can go wrong because of how their mother was wronged and so aren't willing to be naïve or trusting. And I like that it works out for them, that they get to fly off into the distance, their prize won, their enemies defeated, their reputation secure. It's a fun piece and a great read!
"The Night Before Yule" by Daniel Stride
This poem speaks to me of traditions that might have predated our more modern understandings of Christmas celebrations, pre-Christian rituals to keep away dread presences and allow for the return of the sun. It's a nicely creepy poem with a nice beat and an interesting style that relies very heavily on alliteration. The poem does a good job of creating the scene visually and the mood evocatively. It creates this world where the kinder, more familiar images of Christmas are pushed back and the darker, older interpretations come out, where there is a need of sacrifice and where if people fail it is their children that will be taken forth into the cold. I like how the poem maintains the rhythm throughout, building on this twisting of a familiar and rather comforting and nostalgic ritual and revels in the bloody history of it all. I'm not actually sure of the origins of Yule and so I'm not going to bother to speak toward accuracy or anything like that. It certainly feels like it's revealing a world that has been largely forgotten and sterilized, showing how far things have come from the days when people bled pigs to appease the dark forces sliding to their door. It's a fun story and a great piece for the late fall and early autumn, the beginning of the holiday season.